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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 24, 2000. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Copenhagen’

E-mail: SimonSaltzman@princetoninfo.com

In Michael Frayn’s intense, thoughtful play "Copenhagen,"

two physicists, Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco), a Danish Jew and father

of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty), Bohr’s

young German protege and author of "The Uncertainty Principle,"

meet in some sort of afterlife to debate the meaning of their lives,

their collaboration, and their ideological conflicts. Most specifically,

they re-live a mysterious meeting that took place in Denmark in 1941,

when Heisenberg was chief of the Nazi A-bomb project.

Any play in which the characters stand around with the sole purpose

of equating their human behavior to their understanding of particles

that spin around the nucleus of the atom necessarily demands complete

attention. This debate takes place in the watchful and interpretive

presence of Margrethe (Blair Brown), Bohr’s wife. Playwright Frayn,

best known as the author of the popular farce "Noises Off,"

as well as for his translations of Chekhov, does not spare us the

highly technical language of mathematics and physics. He cleverly

allows the play’s central dramatic device, the slightly altered repetition

of events and re-considered conversations, to clarify, for even the

densest among us, the most complex theories.

Regardless of how you feel about what constitutes entertainment, I

would like to wager that you will stay involved, engrossed, and fascinated

by this surrealistical fantasy based on a very real but undocumented

visit by Heisenberg, whose motives have been long debated.

Was Heisenberg, who was a loyal German and professor of physics at

Leipzig but not a Nazi, trying to get from Bohr the equations that

were eluding him in creating weapons of destruction and completing

the bomb? Or was he procrastinating in his work because he was conflicted

by the moral dilemma of his position? Serving as arbitrator and theorist,

Margrethe prods the two scientists, once friends, into replaying,

restating, and reconfiguring their relationship, philosophies, and

motives with the same impassioned integrity that they applied to their

scientific research.

Bohr’s irrefutable reasoning could not be better served than by Philip

Bosco’s stiff-necked countenance and resonant authoritative voice.

Michael Cumpsty, whom McCarter Theater audiences may remember as the

young Orestes in "Electra," is as splendidly invigorating

as he is enigmatic to the play’s end. He heightens the mysteries of

Heisenberg’s impenetrable agenda as his mathematical side collides

with his human side in his curious attempt to reconcile guilt for

his nation’s war-making with his dedication to progress and science.

Blair Brown, who most recently gave a luminous performance in the

Broadway musical "James Joyce’s The Dead," is equally effective

in the role of the objective onlooker who facilitates this meeting

between the man she trusts and loves and the man whose remorse appears

as real as do his inconsistencies.

Designed by Peter J. Davison, the set — an almost empty, circular

forum-like chamber set with three chairs and a row of on-stage bleachers

— gives the impression of a heavenly courtroom. That two men would

find themselves contemplating the activity of isotopes and neutrons

in the hereafter is, in itself, a daunting thought. More daunting

is Bohr’s chilling remark that Heisenberg, for all his intentions,

"never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary

person."

Ultimately we see how the course of human history exists and is altered

by the uncertainties and infinite possibilities of good and evil found

in the limited minds of men, just as it is manipulated and redefined

by the limitless circling scientific matter of the universe. HH

— Simon Saltzman

Copenhagen, Royale Theater, 242 West 45 Street, 800-432-7250.

$40 & $65.

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